Conservatives are off to good start with Clean Air Act

Tories respond to polls showing Canadians concerned about air and water quality

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 11, 2006

From a balcony at Vancouver's Canada Place, Stephen Harper was afforded a spectacular backdrop to his announcement of the Clean Air Act yesterday. On one of those breathtakingly gorgeous Vancouver days, there was Stanley Park over his shoulder and, beyond, the Lion's Gate Bridge across English Bay to North Vancouver.

There's no more spectacular urban setting in the country, and none more at risk from air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. In announcing the Clean Air Act as the first component of his environmental plan, Harper went to significant lengths to link the two issues as one.

"This act will set in motion Canada's first comprehensive and integrated approach to tackle air pollution and greenhouse gases," he said, "and in so doing deliver better air quality and address climate change."

He also went out of his way to position clean air as a health issue as well as a question of lifestyle.

"Poor air quality isn't just a minor irritant to be endured," he said. "It is a serious problem that poses an increasing threat to the health and well being of Canadians."

All of which reflects the government's public-opinion research over the summer, and its findings that Canadians regard clean air and clean water as their top environmental concerns, and that they regard this as a health issue as well as one affecting their quality of life.

Exceptionally, Harper had four cabinet colleagues standing behind him yesterday, though none of them got in the way of the shot. You would expect Rona Ambrose, as environment minister, to be there. And Gary Lunn, the natural-resources minister and a regional minister from British Columbia. But Lawrence Cannon, the transport minister? And Tony Clement, the health minister?

Well, Cannon's role yesterday was to announce a subsidy of hundreds of millions of dollars for public transit, following up on a Conservative campaign promise and continuing the gas tax transfer initiative of the previous Martin government. Cannon was also there as the senior Quebec minister, with the task of explaining the Conservative plan to a province deeply attached to the Kyoto accord.

And Clement, as health minister, was there to reinforce Harper's point that the environment is also a health issue.

The presence of the prime minister and four cabinet ministers at a single announcement looked like a meeting of a cabinet committee on the environment (not a bad idea), and sent a strong signal that this is a government-wide initiative run by the two key central agencies, the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office.

The Clean Air Act is the first in a series of environmental announcements, Will it be enough to satisfy the environmental interest and advocacy groups? Of course not. Their role is to make the perfect the enemy of the good. And some, in fairness, will want to see the details when the Clean Air Act is tabled in Parliament next week after the Thanksgiving recess.

For example, Harper spoke of moving industry "from voluntary compliance to strict regulation." That might satisfy environmental advocates. It might even find some support in the oil patch of Alberta and the auto industry of Ontario.

However, it's not clear that a regulatory framework is the best one, not when measured against industries where voluntary compliance has produced startling results. Canada's forestry industry, for example, has reduced GHG emissions to 30 per cent below 1990 levels - five times the Kyoto target of six per cent.

Harper stands to benefit in some sense from low expectations. And for "those who will say we are not doing enough," he was able to point out that was the view "when the acid rain accord was signed in 1991." That was under Brian Mulroney who, as Harper pointed out, was recently named the greenest prime minister in Canadian history.

As for the opposition parties, they are somewhat constrained. The Liberals are prisoners of their dismal record on climate change. The NDP are conflicted between their wish list on the environment and their supporters in the autoworkers union. The Bloc Quebecois has an all-Kyoto play list, with an occasional tune that Harper is a captive of the oil industry in his home province of Alberta.

But for voters who care about this issue, and most care deeply about it, what they were looking for from Harper was some evidence that he cared about it, too. And that he had plan. Yesterday, he made a beginning on both.

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